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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Issues in the UK and US

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Law
Wordcount: 4058 words Published: 4th Feb 2019

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Why it Remains a Pervasive Issue in the United States and the European Union

            Unsolicited sexual harassment, especially toward women, has been a serious and harrowing issue all around the world for centuries. Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 in the United States defines sexual harassment as unwelcome advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of sexual nature that create offensive or hostile environments (1964, 3). This includes any instance of verbal harassment, molestation, rape, etc. that violate the victim’s dignity while creating a hostile, humiliating, or degrading environment (European Institute for Gender Equality). Sexual harassment has taken many shapes and forms throughout history but one fact remains, women are exploited and discredited while their harassers are more than often unaffected. Women have not been properly represented and advocated for within their respective countries and their voices have been silenced. They have not had a platform to advocate for themselves as well as others because most of the time, their accusations are ignored, discredited, and they are forced to hide their pain and suffering.

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Both the United States and the European Union have laws and legislature in place that prohibit institutions, like schools and workplaces, from having any gender discrimination and encourage the protection of women’s rights. Additionally, countries in the EU have ratified convention such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). However, these measures have been ineffective because there is a severe lack of regulation of these laws and conventions and no monitoring of how they are being implemented. Sexual harassment rates rise steadily in both these regions as over sixty percent of women in the US and EU have been sexually harassed in their lifetime (Clarke 2007, 1) and something must be done about it. Thankfully, testimonies, particularly from the past few years, have sparked the creation of movements that shed light on the horrifying instances of sexual harassment of women around the world and expose the individuals behind such abominable acts. Widespread movements, such as #MeToo and Time’s Up have given victims a community to heal and a voice through which they can combat sexual harassment both in and out of the workplace. There would not be a need for movements like these if harassment and assault were not a prominent issue. Sexual harassment remains a pervasive issue in both the United states and the European Union because, even with conventions, laws, and legislature in place, the lack of regulation, limited monitoring of implementation, and an absence of national recognition leave victims alone in their fight.

            Sexual harassment comes in many different forms and comprehending them is the first step toward understanding the magnitude of this issue. By comparing how both the United States and the European Union define sexual harassment, we can begin to analyze the inner workings of each country in regard to sexual harassment. Cases of sexual harassment are always unsolicited and unwelcome according to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Moreover, the European Institute for Gender Equality defines sexual harassment as a form of gender based violence including acts of unwanted physical, verbal, and non-verbal conduct, which have the grounds or effect of violating the victim’s dignity while creating a hostile or degrading environment (EIGE 1). A key word used in the definition of both the US and the EU is unwelcome. The word unwelcome emphasizes the victims’ discomfort and feelings of entrapment. However, it is not the same as involuntary because a victim may have agreed to certain things before realizing it was offensive or potentially dangerous. The main difference between these two interpretations is their focus. The US centralizes on the act of sexual harassment while the EU concentrates on the results.

            Additionally, there are two main distinctions of sexual harassment that apply to both the EU and the US. The first is the private sphere. This level details sexual abuse in the home or private life of an individual. A study conducted by Quinnipiac University revealed that fifteen percent of women who have been sexually harassed and/or abused said it happened at home. (Frederick, 2) People often forget that some instances of harassment occur within the victims’ homes because most cases of sexual assault occur in the second sphere, the public sphere. This form involves instances of verbal harassment, sexual advances, molestation, rape, etc. that occur in the general community (RAINN). Also included in the public sphere is sexual harassment in the workplace. United States law recognizes two kinds of sexual harassment within the workplace, quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo involves an employee that has to tolerate and endure sexual harassment in exchange for employment, a promotion, a raise, etc. Hostile work environment, as defined by US law, is an offensive work environment that hinders an employee’s performance as a result of sexual harassment in the workplace (Title VII). On the other hand, the EU does not recognize different forms of sexual harassment in the workplace and uses a general definition. This is a huge part of the problem because the lack of distinction and recognition generates apathy and people forget that sexual harassment in the workplace is an entirely different issue on its own.

            The impact of sexual harassment on survivors is severe and can range from depression and anxiety to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Victims can grow to fear physical and sexual conduct and avoid leaving their homes (Thomas, 143). According to Equal Rights Advocates, a women’s law center in the US, one in four women, between the ages of 18 and 35, have been sexually harassed in the workplace. This is only a statistic those who have reported sexual assault and, sadly, many women hide their pain and suffering out of fear. Additionally, this ratio gets slimmer as the women get older. The likelihood of women experiencing sexual harassment in or out of the workplace gets higher the older they are. If a study were conducted on women ages 18 to 75, the ratio would be closer to one in two women. 95 percent of these women suffer from debilitating stress reactions including anxiety, headaches, sleep disorders, weight loss or gain, depression, and fear of physical/sexual contact, as mentioned earlier (Equal Rights Advocates).

            Furthermore, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) concluded that around 90 million women in all EU Member States have experienced at least one form of sexual harassment since the age of 15. That means that almost 60 percent of women have been sexually harassed. These statistics prove that having ratified a convention such as CEDAW has little to no effect on harassment and assault if there is no implementation and hard-set guidelines. Sexual harassment has a disheartening effect that hinders women from asserting themselves within the workplace. Among men, it reinforces the stereotypical view of women as objects. Extreme sexual harassment creates hostile or intimidating work environments that cause women to quit their jobs and look for another one or it discourages them from seeking jobs altogether. Women are too afraid to speak out about the issues they’re facing because they do not want to lose their jobs but if it gets too intense they feel as there is no other option but to quit. For most of American and European history, women quietly endured mistreatment and harassment in the workplace, with little to no protection or way out. By the 1920s, working women were advised to quit their jobs if they cannot handle sexual advances (Hill, 2). These traumatized women, some of which are single mothers, lose their source of income because their voices are silenced and they cannot advocate for their rights. Moreover, sexual harassment at work can have major consequences not only for the victim but for other working women who witness it. Like the harassed individuals, women try not to draw too much attention to themselves to avoid being sexually harassed as well. This hinders them from performing their best because they do not want to stand out, even if it means sacrificing potential promotions, raises, acknowledgements, etc. (Webb, 52) These women are exploited and mistreated because they have no one to fight for them as laws against sexual harassment both in the US and the EU are not adequately enforced.

            The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international treaty that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979. It outlines discrimination against women and calls for national action to end gender based discrimination, harassment, and violence. Additionally, it requires States Parties to legislate provisions, programs, policies, and strategies which prohibit sexual harassment in all spheres. The United States was one of the first signatories on the convention but still has not ratified it. The US claims there are laws and regulations already in place that achieve what CEDAW means to accomplish, one of them being Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It aims to eradicate sexual harassment in schools and workplaces. The goal of the Sexual Harassment Policy, which is in effect at all schools and workplaces, is to provide an environment free of sexual harassment, intimidation, and exploitation. However, it has not worked effectively as sexual assault and harassment rates are steadily increasing. On the other hand, countries in the European Union, such as France and the United Kingdom, have signed and ratified CEDAW. After ratifying the convention, member states are required to meet a series of conditions to end discrimination of women in all forms. This includes assimilating gender equality into their legal system, abolishing discriminatory laws and adopting appropriate ones, establishing public institutions, etc.

            To monitor the implementation of CEDAW, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was set in place by the UN. It is comprised of 23 independent experts from around the world that conduct observations and propose recommendations to state parties. However, these observations are few and far apart and the recommendations are not heavily enforced. The committee also requests that reports be sent in every few years from all member states that have ratified CEDAW yet many do not comply. If a country does not send in general reports of how gender equality and anti-sexual harassment laws are being enforced, the UN does not take any action. These countries are still considered to have ratified the convention even if they are not adhering to the guidelines set forth by the UN. I wanted to evaluate whether there is a correlation between the rates of sexual harassment and ratification of CEDAW. I concluded that there is no correlation between the two because the United States and countries in the European Union have the same rates of sexual harassment and assault. On average, over sixty percent of women in the US and EU reported they have been sexually harassed in their lifetime and sexual harassment rates have been steadily increasing in both these regions (Clarke 2007, 1). This all leads back to the lack of appropriate application and reinforcement, for both CEDAW and other legislature like Title VII, that leaves victims and survivors of sexual assault unprotected while the perpetrators get away with their crimes. Furthermore, the unwillingness of national governments to properly implement and fully adhere to regulations concerning sexual harassment in the workplace causes this issue to remain pervasive.

            Sexual harassment in the workplace is nothing new and has been an agonizing issue for centuries, but it has seen a massive wave of attention and recognition recently as celebrities, citizens, coworkers, and others use their platforms to advocate for the rights of women around the world. The prevalence of workplace harassment led to the creation of groundbreaking anti-sexual assault and women’s empowerment movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up. These movements, like many others, would not be necessary if sexual harassment were not an issue or if it were properly addressed by national governments and institutions. Celebrities have stepped up and accused Hollywood producers, directors, and actors who have taken advantage of their positions and sexual harassed women, such as Harvey Weinstein, Louis C. K., and Kevin Spacey. Countless women have spoken out about harassers, specifically Harvey Weinstein whose scandals triggered a series of allegations against similarly powerful men around the world (Rodino-Colocino, 97). These events provoked the creation of the #MeToo movement, a stand against sexual harassment, specifically in the workplace. It started in the United States on social media as a hashtag under which women would share testimonies about their personal experiences with sexual assault, harassment, and rape in the workplace or a professional setting. It provides a community of healing and lets victims and survivors know that they are not alone in their pain. Celebrities are looked up to and their seemingly perfect lives are envied. The #MeToo movement is extremely powerful and shift our view of Hollywood’s elites. Their courage to openly and so vulnerably share their experiences with the world gives women hope. Through their stories, we can also see that fame and fortune does not grant you a perfect life. Celebrities go through pain, discomfort, and fear just like anyone else and this shows women that they can let their voice be heard as well. Victims in European Union countries have found their voice just as Americans through many powerful women’s declarations. The movement went viral in October of 2017 and exposed the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment. Since then, #MeToo has spread to over 200 countries and women in every community, big or small have the courage to speak out and advocate for their own rights (Edge, 22).

            In response to the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the Time’s Up movement was founded in January 2018 by Hollywood celebrities. Additionally, many A-listers have assisted in the creation of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. The fund provides legal support, defense, and advising to victims of sexual harassment, assault, or abuse in the workplace. As of February 2018, Time’s Up has raised 20 million dollars for its legal defense fund. It has also gained over 200 volunteer lawyers who are going to work directly with victims to ensure their rights are protected (Chu 2018, 16). When you visit the Time’s Up website, the first thing you see is a quote that reads, “The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment, and inequality in the workplace. It is time to do something about it.” This perfectly exemplifies the goal of the movement. The time is up on silencing women and protecting abusers. It is time to make a change and take matters into our own hands since governments refuse to acknowledge the severity of sexual harassment and do something about it (Time’s Up Now).

However, the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have caught plenty of negative backlash. Many men and, surprisingly, even women argue that these movements are unnecessary. Their claims range from attention seeking to pushing an extremist liberal agenda. The individuals who push back are not educated on the goals these movements. Many individuals have claimed that #MeToo and Time’s Up are only ways for women to get more attention and fame by falsely accusing others. People in opposition claim that since there is no proof of the assaults, other than women’s testimonies, how can they believe them? Additionally, men argue that accusations make male workers and executives have to avoid women in the workplace completely. They claim there is no communication between males and females unless it is directly related to work and this can hurt their work performance (Rodino-Colocino, 98). Nevertheless, the opposition to the movement has only given women a bigger reason to fight for their rights and protection. There will always be antagonists but victims and supporters are doing their part to lift their voices, especially for women who are teared down and silenced.

            Additionally, the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have made their way across the pond, literally. What started in the United States has made an impact all over the globe as more than 200 countries have been actively raising awareness and implementing the goals of these movements into their own communities (Edge, 22). The celebrities that have shown their support for the cause, such as Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, Justin Timberlake, Sebastian Stan, and many others, have utilized their platforms to advocate for an issue that is not only current in the United States but it applies all over the world including Europe. The global reach of these movements is massive and shows that women refuse to be silenced and cast aside, rather we will unite our voices and speak out for those who cannot. An example of the expansive influence of Time’s Up and #MeToo is the creation of British versions of them. British media and the entertainment industry have had a surge of simmering issues that leave women feeling hopeful of meaningful change. European celebrities, including Kierra Knightley, Emma Watson, and Daisy Ridley, are speaking out and demanding action. By the end of January, the British Time’s Up initiative had gained the support of over 50 internationally acclaimed women (Chu 2018, 16).They are uniting under this cause and increasingly raising their voices in a post Harvey Weinstein age. Various celebrities have reflected the support of Americans by wearing all black to the BAFTA ceremony much like celebrities who wore all black to the Oscars and the Golden Globes.These effects are mirrored in various countries in the EU and the resulting awareness is causing a change of drastic proportions. These movements have been able to achieve what national governments and legislature have failed to do. They have given all women a hopeful voice and have protected and defended them in the face of injustice and sexual harassment.

            I believe that there are many changes that could be implemented in both the United States and the European Union to lower the rates of sexual harassment in the workplace and, eventually, eradicate it. First, the United States should recognize the flaws and failures of its laws to fully protect women and eradicate sexual harassment in all spheres. They should take necessary measures to ratify CEDAW and enact legislative provisions that ensure the safety of women in and out of workplaces. There should also be proper punishment measures set forth for the perpetrators, such as termination of employment and prison sentences where necessary. Too many harassers get away with their crimes and they must be stopped. I believe that the US should also allocate funds to organizations, foundations, and movements like Time’s Up and #MeToo that properly identify harassers and provide defense for the victims of sexual assault. Next, countries in the European Union that have ratified CEDAW should regulate and measure the extent of implementations within their respective governments and institutions. I believe that EU countries would also benefit from recognizing various forms of sexual harassment rather than relying on a general definition. Additionally, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women under CEDAW should recruit more members to monitor application of the convention into law. They could also revoke the member states’ benefits of ratification. If they have not made an effort to implement policies and no change is detected, they should not be able to say they ratified the convention.

            In conclusion, the prevalence and pervasiveness of sexual harassment in both the United States can be attributed to their lack of regulation of these laws and conventions and the absence of implementation monitoring. Even so, the creation of movements such as Time’s Up and #MeToo have aided in representing for the victims of sexual assault and giving them a voice to speak out about their experiences. The lack of adequate representation and advocacy in the US left women no choice but to speak out for themselves and help others victims and survivors who have been silences. Their stand was inspiring and other countries like the United Kingdom, France, etc. mirrored their movements and efforts (Chu 2018, 16). This has been bringing about the change that governments failed to. Through the strength and global reach of these movement and fund the rates of sexual harassment and assault can be significantly lowered. Additionally, the US and the EU would benefit from implementing appropriate regulations to conventions, updating and revising current law and legislature, setting adequate punishment measures for perpetrators, and nationally recognizing sexual harassment in and out of the workplace.


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